Jim Lee, Chief Creative Officer of DC Comics, on Finding a Work-Life Balance: ‘I Fell Asleep Twice While I Was Driving’

Jim Lee, veteran comicbook artist and now chief creative officer of DC Comics, explained during an onstage interview at Lucca Comics & Games why the likes of Wonder Woman, Batman and the Joker still tug at the heartstrings of readers, and how his drive to rise to the peak of the business sometimes came at a price.

Answering questions from radio host Andrea Rock, Lee said: “Many people can connect with a character like Batman, who is very rooted in tragedy and that is overcoming something horrific that happened to him as a child.”

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“Certainly, when you’re having a bad day a character like the Joker speaks very much to you. You know you’re expressing these themes through the stories and the characters you draw, [and then] people understand you consciously and subconsciously.”

Rock asked Lee whether some characters may need a “moral update” to fit the times we live in, and whether some of them have been particularly challenging to work on.

“I typically don’t have that kind of mental or artistic block,” said Lee. “Maybe this is a weird example but when I lived in Italy for a year back in 2003, I was drawing Superman for the story ‘Tomorrow,’ a character that is a symbol of America. Back then, the [Second] Gulf War was happening, and protests in the streets of Reggio Emilia were taking place.”

The conflict between the tragic events unfolding and the powerful symbology the character carries made him feel “very out of place.”

On his transition from pure comicbook artist to publisher, Lee says that “it didn’t happen overnight,” as he has always been interested in his craft but also in “understanding the comics business.”

After leaving Marvel Comics, he tried to learn the basics of entrepreneurship, negotiating personally every single deal for about two weeks. He then left the task to true professionals, but the experience has proven helpful to understand the nature of their job.

Next, he hired his own staff: “When you first start out working with other collaborators – writers, colorists, inkers, and so on – you want to work with the best people to tell the best stories and reach the widest audience. The publicists and the marketing people who promote your work and speak to retailers have the same impact, if not higher, on a project. They’re essential to the success of a book.”

Working for big corporations has been incredibly useful to form his entrepreneurial mindset: “When I sold my company WildStorm to DC, I became part of a corporate environment. DC is part of Warner Bros., so there’s this typical army-like hierarchy.”

“I started understanding how these organizations operate, what [these] people did. I fit well into that, I was able to be flexible but still do creative work. That’s what ultimately led me to this role.”

He also admitted that the path to reaching a work-life balance has been tortuous and that his enthusiasm for and commitment to his job pushed him to the edge. His lowest point was probably reached when he tried out monophasic sleep. “I used to do that for two weeks but I fell asleep twice while I was driving. I was very mortified and embarrassed, and I realized how bad that was. Then I read an article about the worst thing you can do to yourself and this wasn’t smoking, drinking or taking drugs, but lacking sleep.”

Like many other artists in attendance, Lee stressed the importance of retaining creative ownership and embracing risks: “I worked at Marvel for about six years, and then I started my own business, Image Comics, [which was] about the creators owning their creations.”

“When you create something new you don’t have a fan base, so you need to start small. If you work on characters like Wolverine, it’s a great way to expose your talent to your audience globally but you can also create something new from scratch, like ‘The Walking Dead,’ which was an Image comic and it became what we know.”

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